Vanishing Point

Or, does one step outside of the system in its entirety in order to discover one’s humanity?

What is the system that threatens you the most?

Which system oppresses you?

Is it possible to extricate oneself from such systems entirely?

Or one must make do with what one can to shield oneself from such systems?

I recognized my rebellion today.

I found myself telling a friend with whom I had scheduled a Skype call to use email to let me know she was running late or having network issues connecting from Cotonou, and not a message sent via a social media platform as has been our long established habit in recent years.

I said I was avoiding dark patterns and persuasive design in order to conserve my cognitive capacity for my doctoral study. That the numbed down Pavlovian response to intermittent dopamine hits designed to neurally create addiction to the attention economy’s biggest players’ leaderboards on invested screen time was a mindless way of life I wanted to leave behind in the past.

For the now, in answer to Joseph Campbell’s question, my answer is not to consider any of the more ambiguous and amorphous systems but to ponder the socio-technical one currently giving form to our global zeitgest online, this shared space of the internetworked world wide web of humanity dominated by fast moving content and shaped by machines and algorithms.

In which case, the only way to play is to step out. This is a system designed to flatten you while it steals your humanity to power its mighty engines.

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Digitalization’s discontents and the meaning of life

I was musing on the concept of grand purposes last night, and how the concept of finding meaning in one’s life work tends to be correlated with world changing scale.

What if it wasn’t so anymore?

Sitting here isolated by externally imposed constraints restricting movement and in person meetings, I got to wondering how I would remember to human again – the daily little interactions and acts and thoughts that all work together to build and maintain the unseen qualities of trust and compassion and caring and concern and sympathy.

A quick search on challenges to remote user research constrained by covid brought up only one relevant piece of writing – on compassion in crisis by Marta Zarzycka. Lots of material out there on the technicalities of conducting remote user research accompanied by the practicalities, but do none dare touch the loss of humanity that continuous screen to screen interaction brings? Or, worse, do none notice it or consider it important – with implications for generation gaps or cultural & societal ones.

How do you ‘read’ the room you’re entering in the context of zoom rooms? Where is the energy generated by the brainstorming session or hands on design workshop? As the human animal, we are wandering around blind without the use of half our senses – smell, body language, reading the energy of the room through our skin and the hair at the back of our necks.

If so, then what is the future of the grand projects for transforming quality of life for the greater good? The meaningful ones that bring so much purpose to the teams of social impact/entrepreneur/visionary/dreamers etc? Technology is already demonstrating to us how well programmable we are and how easily we can be roused by simple algorithms.

If the grand challenge and the big idea – the ones that have long been considered to be at the scale worth giving life meaning – are better implemented by a machine, then what is the purpose of a life lived at human scale?


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Have I found my new focal length?

When I picked up the metaphorical pen again last month, here on this blog, after almost a decade of silence, I discovered in the course of my writing that I must find a way to change the focal length of my mind’s eye. As I wrote on March 20th, only my second post in the new series:

That this orientation on far horizons of time, rather than space, has come to serve its purpose, and that a new orientation was now required for this later stage of my life.

While part of this transformation journey at this age has to do with coming to terms with the ending of a long phase of choosing to embrace liminality as the constant lived in experience, I cannot deny that this effort in itself is its own form of liminal space – defined as that between what is over and what is not yet. I wrote:

…without commitment, it would not be possible to gain clarity much less figure out where exactly to focus. That is, one can already see that the need to shorten focal length of my mind’s eye requires a commitment to the distance from the lenses based on which to calculate the curvature of the new lens.

Late last night, in that sleepless zone, it came to me that perhaps I had found the new distance for my focal length. On the necessary commitment required to gain clarity and focus, I have long turned to EM Forster’s words:

” … is not a matter of contract – that is the main difference between the world of personal relationships and the world of business relationships. It is a matter for the heart, which signs no documents.

And, if, going forward, matters are for the heart to decide, then one’s mind’s eye must necessarily then invert its viewpoint entirely, not simply change its focal length. That is, one must first look within, as I have been doing – hesitantly and with great effort – and then, and only then, turn one’s gaze outward to the world outside, contemplating the view from the inner directed perspective rather than being driven by the far sight that is by nature always externally focused, pulling us along towards the intensity of its visions of an emerging future.

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The fast moving river flowing unseen beneath still waters

I do not yet have all the words to craft an articulation of the movement I can sense occurring beneath the surface of my thinking and feeling. But happening it is, and so I play the keyboard tonight in hopes of picking up the faint sounds of the music I haven’t given up looking for in the magic of the word song.

I must not lose sight of the more profound albeit subtler discoveries I have been making through the introspection originally inspired by reading the Kalevala. Recent days have seen long hours immersed in study. Recent thinking and writing full of academic references and intellectual analysis.

Having arrived at a point where I can put my scholar’s pen down for a few days, I have been reminded of my own self’s journey which, when begun, had led to the opening of long lost doors to more thoughtful reflection and pondering before writing.

There is a deeper world than this that you don’t understand
There is a deeper world that this tugging at your hand
Every ripple on the ocean
Every leaf on every tree
Every sand dune in the desert
Every power we never see
There is a deeper wave than this, swelling in the world
There is a deeper wave than this, listen to me girl ~ Sting

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Do digital lyrics convey the magic?

One of the questions being raised in social conversations – over digital means – with friends in different countries is whether the acceleration of digitalization brought about by the pandemic’s constraints might not, in fact, be influencing those of us of a certain age to think like Luddites. This sentence could probably have been framed better but I’m learning as I write to search for magic and music that its the flow that matters more than the perfection of the craft. Let it be, as Paul sang Mary said to him.

Until now the digital divide has been categorized as the Haves and the Have Nots, with the latter being lower income less literate peoples of the global South without infrastructure and systems to affordably access technology – particularly Information and Communication Technology (ICT).

Today I wonder whether we’ll see the emergence in the future of a different flavour of digital divide, with the rise of the Want Nots. Or the So Far and No Furthers.

That is, where do we draw the line to push back on the encroaching digitalization of our humanity? Assumptions – explicit and implicit – begin with the premise that this is an inevitable trend and it has no end.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. ~ Arthur C. Clarke

Is this the magic I want to manifest, asks the aging engineer who has worked hard to make things in the real world for all his life?

Is magic the search for manipulation and control of humanity, asks the technologist a generation younger?

Can we pause and ask if this is the only one way to “progress” says the grandmother who picked up a digital brush 40 years ago?

The people beginning to question the technological dominance of human are not those who have had little experience of technology or less exposure to digitalization. In fact, for most of them these questions arise after the swamping of their daily life with nothing but digital tools and ICT in all shapes and forms.

As life long innovators and early adopters, they better than most are aware of recent developments and the directions of research. Perhaps its this greater awareness that has caused them to pause and question where things are going so fast that one has not had a chance to catch breath nor to ask the questions that need to be answered. I have seen questions raised in all fora and in numerous articles, blogs, and tweets. What I haven’t seen are any real answers.

Maybe then Opt-Out will come to mean more than just unchecking the radio button for a newsletter.

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Finding the magic of word song in the literature of change agents: Weick’s change poets

The minute I set off on a path to unknown discovery, I came across Weick’s reflections on change poetry. Given that I picked up my metaphorical pen to write again after a decade or more of constricted silence after being inspired by the magic of word song – the runot of Finland’s Kalevala. Simplistically put, the Finnish concept of magic takes the form of incantations based on one’s deep knowledge of the origin of things, and such shamans have been known as Tietäjä – literally ‘knower’.

These elements of the foundation of the Kalevala epic captured my trapped throat, and encouraged me to begin writing out thoughts and emotions, putting them into words, learning to articulate again and aspiring to craftmanship. That healing journey opened up long blocked songs of words in the form of writing freely – I called it the sluggish thaw that begins to move the long frozen waters of a deep and dark winter when warmed by the sun in the spring. It is no wonder then that as I begin this long period of writing my dissertation research that Weick’s paper should resonate so well with my beginnings.

To quote Weick’s 2011 “Change Agents as Change Poets“:

The core insight that is the foundation for the poet’s work is straightforward: perception prompts our thought, and thought in turn enriches our perception. The more we see, the more we think; while the more we think, the more we see in our immediate experiences, and the greater grows the detail and the more significant the articulateness of our perception. (James, 1996, pp. 108–109)

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Theoretical background for contextualizing User Agency in Participatory Processes

Scandinavian participatory design practices are not distinguished by particular methods but rather by political commitments to societal concerns and relationships with participating users and communities. Pelle Ehn writes:`In the interest of emancipation, we deliberately made the choice of siding with workers and their organisations, supporting the development of their resources for a change towards democracy at work…'[1993, p.47]. ~ Judith Gregory (2003)

While the evolutionary trajectory of the Scandinavian tradition and approach has emerged from the formal economy’s work places, and the concerns of labour rather than owner/managers; I do not think it a stretch to extrapolate the fundamental values and underpinning philosophy that distinguishes it from other design traditions to the context and conditions of the operating environment of the informal trade ecosystem, as mapped and studied in east Africa.

The concerns of emancipation and agency are rather more critical than less in these focus areas. Questions may arise on whether the informal market woman or vegetable vendor in Nairobi’s slums experiences the same oppression that labour did from management – the original drivers for Scandinavian researchers in their development of the basics of their design and research practices. After all, is she not the free agent of her own trade?

The easy answer is that a moment’s reflection will show that perhaps her oppression is vastly different but not dissimilar in the nature of its ability to disempower and take away decisionmaking and choice in the course of her efforts to improve not the quality of her working conditions but also the quality of life. And, that her expertise in her own experience has never been recognized, nor her fulltime occupation as a sourcer and supplier of fresh produce.

From the perspective of the Scandinavian tradition (Bodker & Kyng, 2018) I am clearly embracing its first principles by choosing to side with her rights to recognition and agency, in my role of designer and researcher. It is from this position that I will now explore further the role of agency of the participant in the process, and how to contextualize the literature for the vastly different operating environment in which I implemented my own project last year.

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Disrupting the Default: Must it fall under “development” if the geography is Africa?

Where does it say that if the geography of the study or innovation or project is in Africa then it must be ‘development’? Is it Tuesday, that it must be Belgium? Will the ‘tyranny of dominant logic’ continue to hold us in thrall regardless of all the massive changes overtaking our world today; including the way connectivity and internetworking has brought us closer to peoples from far away as they share their lives and hopes and dreams on the small screen?

As I continue my literature review on the themes of participation in shaping one’s own working environment, and the overlooked integration of mobile telephony into the daily lives of the invisible masses, I cannot help but notice that regardless of the theme or topic being discussed, if its Africa it must be lumped under development.

Does the African not want to think in the designerly way? Must her acquisition of AI knowledge through an online course be considered capacity building while Nokia’s Chairman gets the accolades for doing the same? Isn’t he being empowered to make informed decisions on investments and product development directions as much as the young woman from Africa is being ’empowered’ by a ‘free online course’ on ‘artificial intelligence’?

It is to Africa’s scholars and thinkers I turn to in order to understand these issues better. In their day, they’ve referred to it as the colonization of the mind, given the imposition of language, customs, religion, et al upon the colonized African.  In 2021, I refuse to fall into the trap of clustering these questions under the umbrella category of ‘decolonization’; twin sister to ‘development’ – a lot of prose and poetry is written, but few clear processes, methods, or analytical frameworks for identifying barriers and lowering them for real world transformation and innovation.

It should go without saying that this was one of the reasons for choosing my adopted homeland to relocate to from San Fransisco and Singapore more than a decade ago. There’s a rather unique legacy in mindset, worldview, and collective history. Finland has never had colonies and instead is one of the rare Northern/Western European countries to have an Independence Day. If it wasn’t the Russian duchifying the poor Finnish peasant, it was the Swedes encroaching across the waters for centuries.

Instead, I turn to management and organization theory, pointing to the late business school professor, Dr. CK Prahalad’s conceptualization of ‘dominant logic’. Memorably, he has said, that it is the tyranny of dominant logic that socializes us to accept that development only flows one way; or that innovation emerges only from the luxurious work spaces of the air-conditioned global North.

Throwing off the yoke of dominant logic is more than just chasing the people out, as any Indian, Kenyan, or Zimbabwean will inform you. Its more critical to learn to question the default settings of one’s own mental models; education system; and the attendent plethora of implicit and tacit assumptions that accompany like jongleurs and fishwives did a walking army.

My rejection of this default setting of development if its Africa arises from my refusal to accept the criminalization of the informal economy by the way its labeled and categorized – its definitely not skulking in the shadows of African cities and villages even if it might be in the OECD’s tax havens. And my very public rebuttal of the ‘vulnerable, marginalized woman selling by the side of the road’ so favoured by livelihood strategists who’d never dream of using the same labels for their local Deliveroo guy or hot dog stand.

Reframing the problem space unleashes whole new opportunities – something that’s been long established in the literature of innovation and design. This is what I’m suggesting here when it comes to the way we categorize and consider the operating environment and economic ecosystems in their African landscape, be it rural or urban.

My recent review of Weick’s work on the role of words and text in enabling sensemaking for transformation and change only serves to underscore my belief in the intangible power of keywords and taxonomy to restrict or unleash new directions for creativity and innovation.

Until we divest ourselves from this default setting we’ll never break out of the box of cookie cutter approaches to product development and solution design – be it a service or business model or payment plan – that caters to the African’s long ignored contextual needs. Innovation does not come with citations.

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Scandinavian Approaches to Participatory Design: Simply a tradition or a coherent philosophy of design?

“Scandinavian participatory design approaches emphasise change and development, not only technological change and systems development, but change and development of people, organisations, and practices, occurring in changing socio-historical contexts.” Gregory, J. (2003). Scandinavian approaches to participatory design. International Journal of Engineering Education, 19(1), 62-74.

Long ago, an essay I wrote on “Why is design important?” went viral via Core77 after I published it on my old blog. My very first words were:

Design is first and foremost a philosophy, based on a system of values, which seeks to solve problems. What are we creating? Why and for whom? Are we correctly framing the problem to be solved? These are the questions to which the answers are then manifested tangibly in the form of a new product, service or business model.

I then went on to write a paean on human centered design, particularly the methods based strategic planning approach particular to Chicago’s Institute of Design, part of the Illinois Institute of Technology where I was once Director of Graduate Admissions. I believe Judith Gregory joined as faculty soon after my departure to the West Coast, and I note that she’s relocated to the same state of warmer climes now. But that’s a digression.

I bring this up because one of the things I did early in my role at ID-IIT was map the top graduate design programs by their philosophy of design. That is, it was my belief that each school had its own flavour of design and without clear communication of these differences, we’d face a common problem of students feeling the school wasn’t a fit for them in the way design was theorized, taught, and practiced.

An example would be Cranbrook’s graduate program focusing on studio based hands on explorations of one’s own creative directions versus the methods focused rigorously analytical MDes program at ID which emphasized design planning, strategy, and systematically applying insights from user research for corporate innovation. Students better off in one sort of program would be either feel stifled or afloat in fantasy land if they found themselves in the other school.

As head of student services, I’d had enough such students crying into their beers about feeling out of place but the program had already eaten half a mortgage worth of student loans. That led me to do the comparative analysis and mapping as part of the programme marketing and recruitment communication strategy. And, the phrase “philosophy of design” seemed best suited to capture the essence of these differences between Stanford and RISD, Cranbrook and Carnegie Mellon, ID-IIT and ArtCenter College of Art and Design.

Clearly, at ID-IIT, we weren’t going in the “explore your creativity” direction here and it was best we brought this up with prospective students in the first instance when they came for their tours and whatnot. I was looking at the Admissions process as a systems design challenge because what the heck, I had access to the best faculty minds to draw upon whilst I wandered around figuring stuff out.

Long story short, the more I read about what is called “the Scandinavian tradition” of participatory design, the more I’m wondering whether its actually a philosophy of design spanning the Nordic countries based on a system of common values centered on democratic participation, worker’s rights, centering of voice and agency of the end-users in the decision making process regarding their systems and tools, and the right of access to such tools that enable making sense of complexity and uncertainty i.e skills enhancement, knowledge creation and redistribution, among other empowering goodness?

How long can you call it a tradition? Why do they call it a tradition? Is it because calling it a philosophy would place the academics in the painful position of umpteen theoretical papers justifying the use of one word, a problem I hadn’t faced as a program administrator or blogger? So I thought I’d throw it out here and if someone comes across it, if they ever do a search outside of Google Scholar’s paywalled gardens, then maybe I’d get an answer in reply.

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Design of Visual Sensemaking Tools for Informal Economy: Literature Review

Since I have long been exposed to the concept of sensemaking from the perspective of the synthesis phase of human centered design research, and design/innovation planning & concept development, I hadn’t thought to review the literature last year when building customized sensemaking tools for market women and vegetable vendors sourcing and supplying fresh vegetables in Nairobi’s slums.

This was already a key element of my professional practice: When faced with complex and systemic challenges, the first task is to make sense of it in easily visualized; understood; and communicable fashion that can inspire insights and catalyze collaboration.

Now, however, the exigencies of my doctoral study required I frame and contextualize elements from decades of professional practice within the bounds of theoretical legacies, and I began looking for literature on sensemaking that made the most sense for my application area. As previously noted, I’d found it useful to go back to early literature or pioneering theorists in the field to ground my attempts to extrapolate knowledge emerging from or traditionally applied in highly industrialized organizational contexts to the informal economic ecosystems that characterize the operating environment for a vast majority in the global South.

The theory of sensemaking in the organization context (i.e. work related practices since I’ve framed the last mile of informal fresh produce supply as a socio-technical system (STS) in context of applying the Scandinavian tradition of participatory design methodology) is considered to have been developed by Karl E. Weick, and papers between 1979 to 2001 are cited to support this assertion in literature that surfaces from a variety of disciplines that take the perspective of sensemaking for studying processes, particularly those related to organizational change, design and innovation, and systems and complexity.

It is, however, Weick, Sutcliffe & Obstfeld’s 2005 paper that captured my attention. The reason for this can be traced in the literature to Kolko’s comparative analysis as visualized below. Read More »

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